When I first was becoming an observant Jew, I found it difficult to wear a yarmulke (skullcap) in public. The head covering identified me as an Orthodox Jew. Although I was growing religiously, I still wanted to blend in and not be different. So I struggled inwardly. Sometimes I wore it; sometimes I donned a baseball hat, and sometimes I did not wear a head covering. My religious ambivalence came to the forefront when I accepted a role in our high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank. I played the part of Peter Van Daan, Anne’s romantic interest; and in one climactic scene, I had to embrace Anne and kiss her. From an Orthodox perspective, this was a no-no, but I was full of myself and my acting ability and did not pass on accepting the part or the kissing that went along with it.
The play was presented on Friday night, the Sabbath, as well as on Saturday night and my synagogue rabbi came to see the play on Saturday night. I sensed an oncoming crisis. I was going to kiss a girl publicly in front of my rabbi. What to do? The answer: I did it and my face turned beet red from the embarrassment. Trying to live in two disparate words was impossible for me, and that play became my last foray into acting in a play with a co-ed cast. My approach to my growing religious observance was inconsistent, and it was not until years later that I had the courage and wisdom to live a consistent religious life in which my actions in life mirrored my ideology. Which is why I became enamored with Chariots of Fire.
I first saw Chariots of Fire, a drama about the nature of sports, the competitive drive, and the consistency of religious convictions in 1981, when I myself was running five or six times a week. The film is about two men who are running in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a young Scottish preacher, and Harold Abraham, a very competitive British Jew. The story chronicles their journey to Olympic glory, and in the process contrasts the worldviews of these two men.
The crux of the movie occurs when Liddell is asked to compete in an Olympic event on Sunday, his Sabbath. He has to wrestle with his desire to compete on the one hand, and his desire to be faithful to his religious beliefs on the other. In the end, he places principles before personal gain. Moreover, he understands that all his strength comes from God, and that all his earthly activities should express his connection with the Divine.
Jewish tradition tells us that whatever we do in this world should be done to glorify God. In the classic Ethics of the Fathers, it states: “All that the Holy One, Blessed is He, created in this world, He created solely for His glory.” The rabbis deduce from this that even mundane acts can acquire sanctity if we perform them with the right attitude. Eating can be a mitzvah (a good deed) if we eat to be strong to serve God. Sleeping can be a mitzvah if we sleep in order to give our bodies needed rest so that we can rise like a lion on the morrow to do God’s work.
This is the mindset of Eric Liddell. Running serves as an opportunity to glorify God, and he reminds us to place spiritual integrity over worldly glory.